Too often when we read about famous people who has made a long-lasting positive impact on the world, we are given only an arms-length account of the “main points” of their lives. Rarely do we have a chance to truly get to know them through a first-hand account where we see not only who they were but also the world and period of time in which they lived. This is why we at OutlooK-12 are delighted to be able to share with you a special article about beloved children’s author Ezra Jack Keats who would have celebrated his hundredth birthday this year. Written by world-renown scientist and Keats’ very close friend Martin Pope, the story paints a vivid picture of The Great Depression, artistic inspiration and the enduring power of friendship.
My task here is to provide a sense of the times in which Ezra and I lived and forged bonds that held us together for essentially all of his life. I met Ezra in 1933 when I was 12 years old. He and I were students at Junior High School 149 in Brooklyn. From that time until his death, 53 years later, we had the good fortune to remain close friends.
He was an artist-illustrator and author of children’s books, and I am a scientist. How did we become friends? We met as children with embryonic skills but with similar curiosity about the surrounding world. We lived in the same neighborhood, went to the same schools, shared the same cultural background, suffered the same hardships and read many of the same books, always enjoying each other’s retelling of those stories. Our relationship developed into one similar to brotherhood without the complications of sibling or any other form of rivalry. Our interests were complementary. We taught each other to see the same scene through different windows. We took each other for granted, to be called upon at any time for advice and/or assistance. Neither the passage of time nor the distance that sometimes separated us had any impact on our shared memories, and each of our conversations throughout our lives was a continuation of other endless conversations.
During the years that we were in Junior High School 149 and continuing until the beginning of World War II, this country and the rest of the industrial world were in the grip of the Great Depression. Our families were poor. Securing food and shelter was the major focus of our lives. There was little or no money for anything else. Our mothers had incredible skill in making something out of nothing: soup from bones, and clothing from fragments of cloth. Potato soup was delicious and went a long way; bread was home-baked and cheaper than at the store. Borrowing and lending of small kitchen necessities among neighbors was a way of life. Yet, although women could be neighbors for decades, they never called each other by their first names; Mrs. Katz would always address her dear neighbor of many years as “Mrs. Blatt.” We never learned how to roller-skate, and it was well into later years that we learned how to ride a bike. Both of us and most of the boys on the block peddled candies, pretzels and ice cream to supplement family income and to earn the five cents to pay for an occasional movie.
Our chief form of intellectual excitement came from reading. We were both voracious readers, consuming everything in sight—Horatio Alger’s rags-to-riches tales, Nick Carter detective stories, the Tarzan of the Apes series, Zane Grey adventures, Tom Swift’s inventions and other books written for our age group. Other favorites included Jack London, P.G. Wodehouse, Booth Tarkington, Rudyard Kipling, Jules Verne, Mark Twain and O. Henry. We never bought any of these books, but they appeared miraculously, passing from hand to hand, and disappeared just as mysteriously. We also managed to read every book of interest to us in our local library: all the books on art for Ezra and all the books on science for me. The most popular for us were biographies of the masters. Like most children, we looked at the lives of the great for guideposts to a future in our chosen fields.
For us, the movies were the ultimate in entertainment. Adventure and comedy were our chief fare. For comedy, we had Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, Ben Turpin and Our Gang. For adventure, we had Douglas Fairbanks; for westerns, we had Tom Mix, Harry Carey, William S. Hart and Bill Boyd. The westerns came in a series of weekly episodes, and we couldn’t wait to see if all of our plot predictions were correct. For thrillers, we had Dracula, Frankenstein and The Phantom of the Opera with Lon Chaney.
In 1932, we entered Thomas Jefferson High School. Ezra lived less than two blocks from me, and both of us were less than one block from the school.
He lived on the third floor, and I lived on the top floor of four-story walk-up tenements. On the first floor of his building in Apt. 3 lived one of his good friends who was also an artist. This probably influenced his choice of the title for his book “Apt. 3.” The roof was our mountaintop. We had unobstructed views of the great expanse of the sky. We marveled at the grand maneuvers of the pigeons guided by the hobbyist pigeon fanciers. Ezra painted scenes from his roof.
It was a time for idealism, and Ezra was captivated by the dream of a humane, just and truly democratic society. A ray of hope was generated by the landslide presidential election of Franklin Delano Roosevelt who quickly initiated work programs including the Works Progress Administration (WPA). Our discussions touched on every concern of bright, idealistic young people. We spoke out for issues that now everyone takes for granted but that then were considered to be Utopian fantasies: unemployment insurance, social security, financial support for education, health benefits, a respectable form of welfare or public support for the hungry. We fully expected that someday soon the exploitation of humans would come to an end. Ezra’s sympathies were distinctly with the underdog, and his eloquent paintings during this period focused on the despair and loneliness of the unemployed.
In addition to his undisputed position as the master artist in school, Ezra was an honor student whose wit, sense of humor and talent as a storyteller made him popular with his peers. He was also the captain of the fencing team, an athletic skill compounded by his exquisite eye-hand coordination and his romantic flair.
After graduation from high school in 1935, Ezra faced a dilemma. He was without a doubt a gifted painter, skilled in oils. Internally driven, he never entertained the notion of being anything other than an artist. To continue as an artist would mean a life of extreme uncertainty at best. There would be times of financial distress, and who would support him? His older brother, Kelly, had just married and left home, and his older sister, Mae, was the sole support of the family. It was clear that he would have to find a steady income and earn his livelihood as a commercial artist. His first job offers came from the field of comic books. Sometimes he brought work home to finish, and in his absence, his mother would invite her neighbors in to admire the beautiful work being done by her magnificent son, the child who had inherited her own, untrained artistic talent.
He worked in comic books for about a year while still living at home but kept up his fine art skills and interests by attending classes at the Art Students League. From comic books, he moved into work as an artist in the Federal Arts Project, part of the WPA, set up by Roosevelt to provide employment for artists while giving them opportunities for creative expression in the service of society.
He introduced me to the works of the great Mexican muralists, José Clemente Orozco, David Alfaro Siqueiros and Diego Rivera. But most important to us were the menacing events in Europe and Asia. The world political situation had worsened considerably. Hitler had taken over in Germany and attacks on Jews were a frequent occurrence. Stalin had instituted his purges in the Soviet Union. The Japanese had seized Peking, Shanghai and other cities in China and Franco was winning his war against the legal democratic government in Spain. During our endless conversations, Ezra would walk me home, I would turn around and walk him home, and this would go on until we would finally say farewell midway. On December 7, 1941, Ezra and I were walking in Greenwich Village when we heard that Japan had attacked Pearl Harbor.
In 1942, we were separated by the war. I went to the Far East, and Ezra stayed in the United States in an army camouflage unit, using his artistic skills. He returned to civilian life in 1945 and shortly thereafter was hospitalized with a serious bout with stomach ulcers. I returned early in 1946 and met and married Lillie shortly thereafter. Ezra became a part of both of our lives.
Our close friendship resumed, and Ezra was a frequent visitor at our home. Lillie was active in getting some of Ezra’s paintings sold and in general was solicitous of his well-being. He accompanied us on several of our vacations, one of which was a trip to a visually spectacular part of Arizona. His inspiration for “Clementina’s Cactus” came from that desert adventure.
Ezra was a deep thinker, constantly probing for universal and just principles of behavior. We discussed his artistic work when he was having problems such as with an agent, an editor or a critic. He consulted me about the nature of the planets when he was doing “Regards to the Man in the Moon” and whenever he was unsure about some law of nature.
Ezra was highly intelligent, good-looking and widely read, had a marvelous sense of humor and was a spellbinding storyteller. With all of this, and his artistic gifts and stature, he was attractive to women. He formed serious attachments to several women during his life. They were intelligent, interesting, attractive, talented and self-reliant. However, he could never come to terms with marriage.
He loved children, and when engaged with them, his entire persona changed. He was completely open. He accepted their comments with patience and humor and provided encouragement to them in their efforts. He enjoyed my children and those of his other friends. He especially took pleasure in his brother’s daughter, Bonnie, born in 1943.
Pets play an important part in Ezra’s books. When we were youngsters, the only pet that could satisfy our need to nurture another living creature and that fell within the bounds of frugality, cleanliness and the limits of space was a goldfish. As an adult, Ezra took great comfort from his dog, Jake, and at the end, from his cat, Samantha. Jake was a Weimaraner who “wrote” delightful letters to Bonnie. Samantha was a red Persian who often perched inches from whatever work occupied Ezra, watching his brush as if it were a mouse. Samantha was still alive when this memoir was written, in 1993, 16 years old and enriching the life of one of Ezra’s admirers.
At the age of 67, a heart problem that Ezra had experienced earlier returned. He was experiencing angina pains, despite having undergone open-heart bypass surgery, and he had to be hospitalized. He asked me to serve as intermediary with his physician. It was my responsibility to question his doctor about his latest diagnosis and prognosis, to interpret the answers in a manner that would be understandable and optimistic to Ezra and to share in the decision-making. However, Ezra’s heart was seriously damaged, and nothing was available at the time to prevent his death in the hospital.
Ezra’s themes in the books he wrote and illustrated can in many cases be traced to his childhood experiences. His suffering in early life from economic privation and anti-Semitism coupled with his firmly held belief in a more equal society for all people and his love for children made the minority child a natural subject for his creativity and for the expression of his artistic genius.
It is clear to me that in writing stories about Peter, Louie, Roberto, Susie and Amy, Ezra was writing about himself and all children who endure through hardship to realize their dreams and use their talent. In fact, the schools we attended and the neighborhood in which we lived are now inhabited by the very children of whom he wrote.
I was privileged to have his friendship over almost the entire span of his life. He was cultured, attentive and curious; he taught me how to look at and read a painting; he kept me in stitches with the humor in his stories; and he encouraged me when I had doubts. He graced my home and enchanted my children. His work has had a profound influence on children’s literature in the 20th century and will be loved by children in the next century.
When I look back on the days when we walked arm in arm as youngsters on our way to the library laughing much of the way and recall that grim time at New York Hospital when with disbelieving eyes I was horrified to see his life slipping away in my hands, I feel as if we were actors in a Greek tragedy, moving about with apparent freedom of choice but all the while in the grip of the Fates who had predestined the alpha and omega of our friendship.
(Adapted from the book “Ezra Jack Keats, Artist and Picture-Book Maker,” by Brian Alderson.)